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A new road to riches
Anthony Cotton
July 13, 1981
Free agents are costing millions under the NBA's Right of First Refusal system
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July 13, 1981

A New Road To Riches

Free agents are costing millions under the NBA's Right of First Refusal system

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Unlike most sizable or lengthy contracts, Johnson's will be paid in cash, with no deferrals. As a result, Magic will make $2,739.73 per day when his new contract takes effect in 1984. Or, based on the NBA norm of two checks per month over an eight-month period, he will get $62,500 in each pay envelope.

Buss envisions Johnson playing another 10 to 12 years and then becoming Coach Magic or General Manager Magic, which should make the incumbents in those jobs, Paul Westhead and Bill Sharman, feel terrific.

Last week Buss tried to justify Johnson's contract while relaxing at Pickfair, beneath a portrait of Mary Pickford, who seemed to beam approvingly. Pickford and her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., were the original owners of the isolated Beverly Hills mansion Buss purchased in 1980 for $5.4 million. "What we tried to do was find what would be a fair salary for a free agent in 1984," he said. "We figured that would be $700,000, but inflation until then will be a minimum of six to seven percent. Over the 12 years of the basketball portion of the contract, then, that figure would double to $1.4 million a year, so we just averaged it off to a million a year.

"Past that, you have to look at Magic's front-office capabilities. Right now a good coach or general manager, with Magic's P.R. value, averages $200,000 a year. That doubles during his playing career, and in another 15 years, with inflation, that same coach would be making $800,000."

Buss believes that in 25 years the average secretary will be making $60,000 a year, but adds, "It won't mean anything. You'll also be paying $5 for a gallon of gas and $35,000 for a car. That's if inflation goes the way I say it will. I'm gambling, but if it does, then I've got the edge."

Buss would like to end the NBA draft now; he advocates free agency for every NBA player, rookie or otherwise. "If Ralph Sampson was a pianist or mathematician and six people wanted him, they would bid for his services and he would choose where he wanted to go," Buss says. "That's how it is in every other endeavor in life, why not in sports? All the draft is is selecting the right of first refusal for a player after the player's first three-year contract."

If the draft were to be abolished tomorrow the Cavaliers would be way ahead of the game. Because of trades, the Cavs have just one first-round pick until 1987. As a result, Cleveland, 28-54 in 1980-81, has been forced to go heavily after free agents. Some owners and general managers of other teams would say heavy-handedly. Besides the offers to Birdsong, whom Kansas City traded to New Jersey after matching Cleveland's offer, and Edwards, Cavalier owner Ted Stepien has signed former King Forward Scott Wedman to a five-year deal for a potential $4 million and has offered a four-year, $1.4 million contract to Guard Bobby Wilkerson of the Bulls.

According to Stepien, the Cavs' No. 1 need was for a center. Robert Parish of the Celtics was their first choice, but he signed before the regular season ended. No. 2 on their list was Edwards. Cleveland's second need was a big guard. The first choice there was Ray Williams of the Knicks, "but right off the bat he was in the million-dollar range," Stepien says.

"We were amazed when we heard that Birdsong was available. K.C. had made an offer of $600,000 and withdrawn it when Otis decided to test his worth in the open market. From there it was only guesswork coming up with a figure that would be acceptable to Otis. We also wondered what we could do to make it difficult for another team to match our offer." What Cleveland did was present a bid that shocked most owners.

Although that didn't secure Birdsong, it did get Edwards and Wedman for Cleveland. The Cavaliers guaranteed those acquisitions by giving draft picks to the Pacers and Kings not to match their offers.

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